Air New Zealand joins several other airlines, such as Emirates and TAP Air Portugal, that use picocell technology to allow mobile voice calls on certain flights.

Whether you like it or not, in-flight mobile calls may soon be coming to an airline near you.

Air New Zealand recently signed up with Geneva-based OnAir, an onboard system that allows airline passengers to use mobile phones, laptops and other portable devices to communicate with the ground using voice and/or data connections.

While some carriers, such as British Airways and Qatar Airways, use OnAir to allow only data communications (text, e-mail), Air New Zealand joins several other airlines, such as Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, Royal Jordanian and TAP Air Portugal, that use the technology to allow mobile voice calls on certain flights. It's a highly controversial notion in the US, where lawmakers have proposed laws that would ban in-flight voice calls.

OnAir and other companies such as Aeromobile employ picocell technology, deemed safe by aviation authorities. With the flip of a switch, any airline using OnAir can set the system to offer both data and voice calls on any flight. (Voice calling is available to anyone with a GSM phone and an international roaming agreement.)

Singapore Airlines, which announced last October that it was looking into new in-flight connectivity options, is mulling over the idea of in-flight calls. "While the suite of in-flight communication hardware that we plan to launch this year will include the ability to place and receive phone calls, whether or not we actually activate voice calling depends on passenger feedback," said airline spokesperson James Boyd.

Emirates, which has allowed in-flight voice calls since 2008 and now offers it on 85 aircraft, announced in February that it hit the five-million user mark.

Currently, Air New Zealand offers both voice and data communications on two domestic Airbus A320 jets. Two more jets will offer the service by the end of the year. According to their web sites, OnAir and/or AeroMobile have signed agreements with other big name carriers such as Lufthansa, Qantas, SAS and TAM (Brazil).

Aircell's Gogo in-flight internet system, in use on several US carriers, offers only data connections now, but there have been reports of passengers bypassing blocks and using Gogo to conduct VOIP calls while in flight. In addition, Aircell is currently rolling out a new system upgrade that offers voice and internet communications on private corporate aircraft.

So one way or another, it appears that in-flight calls are in the cards. The technology is there for voice calls, and it's up to the airlines to decide whether or not to deploy it.

Do you like the idea of in-flight calling, or not? If not, would you be amenable to the idea of restricting calls to certain parts of the plane or certain hours of the day?

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